Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

SportsSeptember 3, 2019

If NZ really wants to revive youth sport, there’s one obvious nation to emulate

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

A squad of New Zealand’s big sporting bodies just announced they were ‘taking a stand’, to ‘create a positive experience for all young people playing sport’. If they’re serious about achieving both a healthier national culture and a slew of world-class athletes, the model should be Norway, writes Trevor McKewen.

“It’s time to change our approach to youth sport,” went the all-caps headline in full-page advertisements placed in New Zealand’s three major daily newspapers (how quaint) this morning. Announcing a commitment to making children’s sports fun again, the text was signed by Sport New Zealand and five National Sports Organisations – the big ones: rugby union, rugby league, cricket, netball and hockey. The Herald called it a “statement of intent”.

“The country’s five biggest sporting codes are vowing to be less competitive and more fun as they try to tackle a growing number of teens dropping out,” was the Herald summary, before it added in the obligatory “warning” from a sceptical double Olympian gold medallist.

“I understand the need to keep people in specific sports, participating and having fun, and that to me is fine until a certain age, but once in their teens, life gets competitive … so sport should be no different,” rowing legend Eric Murray told the Herald.

Over at Stuff, they called it a “Youth Sport Shake-Up”, with Sport NZ boss Peter Miskimmin quoted saying: “We’re taking a stand to bring the fun and development focus back to sport for all young people.”

“This includes pushing back against early specialisation, over-emphasis on winning, and other factors that are driving young New Zealanders away from sport. Sporting organisations are aware of the problem and some are already making changes, but more is required and the six of us are stepping up to say we will lead the way.”

In RNZ-land, Susie Ferguson and Corin Dann were already kicking off the talkback debate on Morning Report on whether this was good or bad for a country that prides itself on punching above its weight in elite sport. But for a witless cricket umpire, we could be going for a sweep of World Cups in Japan next month.

Let me spare you some of the debate. What if I told you there was a country that had exactly this discussion more than three decades or so and it was proved resoundingly right?

What if I told you this country’s elite sporting triumphs around the globe had actually risen after they decided to put the kids first?

In a fascinating recent article for the New York Times a few months ago, sports journalist Tom Farrey recounts spending more than a decade researching and attempting to find the best youth sporting system in the world.

Farry’s criteria included international elite sport outcomes, but he also wanted to discover if any country had nailed over-achievement on the world stage while also successfully harnessing sport’s altruistic benefits to an individual’s mental and physical health, and collectively the nation’s wellbeing.

So off he went around the globe to study children’s and teenage sport and the type of attitudes it produced in adults in China, Cuba, Australia and several European countries before finding his eureka moment.

“Imagine a society in which 93 percent of children grow up playing organised sports,” he teased his Times audience. “Where costs are low, the economic barriers to entry few, travel teams aren’t formed until the teenage years — and where adults don’t start sorting the weak from the strong until children have grown into their bodies and interests.

“Then, the most promising talents become the most competitive athletes in the world, on a per-capita basis.”

Farrey claimed this country had nailed educating its citizens to embrace sport for its non-competitive elements. Abusive sideline parents? They don’t exist. Talent poaching? Can’t happen. Over-training? Unheard of? What nation could possibly have it that together?

The answer was Norway.

I wondered if Farrey might have stopped off at an Amsterdam coffee shop on his way home. For starters, how could he support his claim Norway is home to the most competitive athletes in the world?

Well, for starters they won 39 medals at last year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, a record for the most medals achieved in one Winter Games. To give some context, the United States (with roughly 60 times the population of Norway) finished fourth with a total of 23.

Norway dominates winter snow sports in Europe and worldwide, which is no mean feat, but it also currently boasts world number ones as diverse as the best female 400m hurdler to the best male beach volleyball player. Yes, beach volleyball.

Henningsvær, a fishing village in Vågan Municipality, Norway. (Photo: Getty Images)

Handball may not big in our part of the world but it’s huge everywhere else, particularly in Europe. Twenty-seven million people play it around the globe. Norway is the world’s second best handball team. Norway’s women’s football team has been European, World Cup and Olympic champions at different times over the past two decades.

Farrey wanted to understand how Norway had achieved this elusive elixir of competitive success and national wellbeing. He discovered his answer in an eight-page document “unlike any other in the world”.

In 1987 (the same year the All Blacks won the first Rugby World Cup), Norway’s government passed a bill called Children’s Rights in Sport, a document which now underpins their whole sports ecosystem.

Updated in 2007, it’s a simple document that describes the type of experience every child in the country must be provided. It includes safe training environments and puts emphasis on activities that create friendships. Children “must be granted opportunities to participate in planning and execution of their own sport activities”. They may “decide for themselves how much they would like to train,” and can even opt out of games if they just want to practise.

In Norway, if you want to switch to another club or sport midway through a season, nobody stands in your way. You can even play for different clubs from one week to the next. There are no regional championships before the age of 11. Even publicising scores or rankings is forbidden. Norway prioritises participation through to the age of 13. Only then are national championships in any sport held.

“We believe the motivation of children in sport is much more important than that of the parent or coach,” Inge Andersen, former secretary general of the Norwegian confederation told Farrey. “We’re a small country and can’t afford to lose them because sport isn’t fun.”

All 54 of Norway’s national sport federations voted to adopt and abide by Children’s Rights in Sport and its vision statement of “Joy of sport for all.” Any sports organisation or club that doesn’t play by the document’s rules loses access to government funding. Once you become a teenager and decide what sport you most enjoy, Norway will assist top prospects with specialised coaching.

I found it impossible to read Farrey’s conclusions and not make comparisons to New Zealand. We have a similar sized population to Norway and we share strong, independent thinking. Yet our sporting ideals seem poles apart when you look at how we encourage our kids to play sport. Remember the hullabaloo over North Harbour rugby dissolving their junior rep programme? In light of Norway’s approach, North Harbour look enlightened.

So too do the five NSOs and Sport NZ.

We may now also be seeing the first negative element of the All Blacks’ and Black Ferns’ legacy of excellence.

Obsessed with their national heroes, we have a generation of boys and girls who are over-training in zealous pursuit of sporting fame and riches which is causing ACC claims to sky-rocket by a massive 60% over the past 10 years. But the concern is not the financial cost, it’s the human one.

The head of injury prevention at ACC, Isaac Carlson, recently wrote powerfully on The Spinoff of his own experience as a youngster. Worldwide there are countless obsessive parents fearing their kids will miss the bullet train of professional sport unless they are exposed to the right training and pathway. This is particularly true in New Zealand and it isn’t a recent phenomenon. Sonny Bill Williams and Benji Marshall were both only 14 years old when they were shifted across the Tasman by Australian rugby league’s ruthlessly competitive recruiting machine.

Anxious parents certain they have the next big thing on their hands fall prey to poor advice to specialise in one sport, from “you gotta get those 10,000 hours up!” to the inevitable “Your kid needs a manager. I’m available.”

Recent research has conclusively shown that concentrating on one single sport as a child is actually detrimental to the development of their bodies and motor skills. Children need a mix of sports that use the lower body, core, upper body and also develop hand-eye-foot co-ordination skills. One of the best all-round activities is actually dance.

Around the world, sports programmes are spitting out kids who are burnt out by the end of their teenage years and often walk away from sport altogether. Many endure significant mental health challenges around a perceived failure to produce the golden egg the family believed it was entitled to. At worst, they pay the ultimate price, like US Olympic cyclist Kelly Catlin (warning: this is one of the saddest stories you will read in a long time).

There is no poaching problem in youth sport in Norway because there’s no such thing as a school sports scholarship. The ongoing Auckland secondary schools poaching saga – of which this contretemps was just the latest example – can’t happen there. Nor can the ridiculous scenario in Hastings where a first XV school was told it would forfeit points in a tournament if they persisted with fielding a girl in their first XV team.

In Norway, families don’t need to chase athletic scholarships because college, like healthcare for young people, is free. Sports is not seen as a way out in the same way as it is in some of New Zealand communities.

Farrey encountered “mild frustration” among more ambitious parents and zealous young athletes about the constraints on testing their talents beyond the local level at an early age. Anders Mol, the world’s best beach volleyball player, was a prodigy from a young age. He grew up in a remote area of Norway where his father had to import sand and seek out opponents so his son could practice.

Anders told Farrey that as a child he was bothered by having to wait to compete elsewhere against other young players. But he said the delay built a fire in him and that playing other sports at the same time improved his all-around athleticism.

“I understand why we do this,” he told Farrey of the Children’s Rights in Sport framework. “It’s good.”

Farrey concluded the US would probably not be able to replicate Norway’s system because the country is too big to get everyone on the same page around sports policy.

But New Zealand is relatively the same size as Norway. A similar approach is achievable here, if we are willing.

Keep going!